Oral Cancer vs. Canker Sore: Important Differences Explained

oral cancer vs canker sore

It might come as a surprise that about one in every ten people is affected by canker sores. And while their cause is unknown, they are usually triggered by hormonal shifts, stress, and food sensitivities.

However, what makes canker sores so frightening is that people frequently mistake them for oral cancer. Fortunately, this article will take an in-depth look and explain the main differences between oral cancer vs canker sore.

What Are Canker Sores?

Canker sores are small, shallow lesions that typically develop at the base of your gums or on the soft tissues in your mouth. Although they might look similar to cold sores, canker sores are not contagious and don’t appear on the surface of your lips. It’s also worth noting that canker sores can be quite painful, making eating and talking difficult.


As previously mentioned, the causes of canker sores are still under debate. Yet, there are a few common triggers:

• A diet that lacks zinc, B-12, iron, or folate
• Toothpaste and mouthwash containing sodium lauryl sulfate
• Minor injuries to your mouth, caused by dental work, sports mishaps, accidental cheek bites, or overzealous brushing
• Emotional stress
• Hormonal shifts
• Allergic response to certain bacteria in your mouth
• Food sensitivities, especially to coffee, chocolate, eggs, strawberries, nuts, spicy or acidic foods
Helicobacter pylori

Luckily, canker sores should go away in a week or two. But if you notice any large or painful canker sores that don’t seem to heal, you should contact your doctor as soon as possible.

What Is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer is a dangerous condition that affects almost 54,000 people in the US, 70% of whom are men. Generally speaking, oral cancer appears as a sore or growth in the mouth that doesn’t go away.

It’s important to mention that the term oral cancer includes all sorts of cancers, including those of the cheeks, tongue, lips, sinuses, pharynx, the floor of the mouth, and hard and soft palate.

When diagnosed early, oral cancer is easy for doctors to treat. However, most people get a diagnosis when the condition is far too advanced to be treated effectively. So, you should check with your doctor regularly, as they will be able to identify any suspicious changes, increasing the chance of discovering oral cancer early.


Just like canker sores, the cause of oral cancer is still unknown. However, there are a couple of risk factors that could increase the chance of developing this health condition:

• Heavy alcohol use
• Excessive sun exposure to your lips
• A weakened immune system
• Family history of cancer
• Poor diet
• Tobacco use of any kind, like pipes, cigars, chewing tobacco, and snuff
• A sexually transmitted virus called the human papillomavirus

Differences Between Canker Sores and Oral Cancer

Since they look similar, people often confuse canker sores for oral cancer or vice versa. By knowing the main difference between the two, you can get an early diagnosis and prevent the further development of cancer.

Canker sores differ from oral cancer in a couple of ways:

• Canker sores can be quite painful, while oral cancer doesn’t usually cause any pain.
• More often than not, canker sores go away within 10 to 14 days. Yet, oral cancer lesions don’t go away and can persist indefinitely.
• Canker sores are flat, have a yellow or white center, and turn gray as they heal. Oral cancer lesions are either flat or raised and have a white or red color.
• Even though canker sores can cause temporary pain when eating or drinking something acidic, such as orange juice, they don’t lead to problems with speaking, swallowing, or chewing as oral cancer does.

Gretchen Walker
Gretchen is a homemaker by day and writer by night. She takes a keen interest in life as it unfolds around her and spends her free time observing people go about their everyday affairs.